Editorial / Mass Effect 3 gives death a new meaning

Hi! Just a heads up, there’s going to be FULL SPOILERS FOR MASS EFFECT 3 in this article. Probably best to beat the game before reading!

Gaming has taught us a lot about death. In some titles, it’s as formulaic as swallowing pellets in Pacman. Elsewhere, it’s an education, a skill, or art form. But death at its best, at its most memorable, is almost always about loss and tragedy.

Just look to the likes of Final Fantasy VII for proof. The death of Aeris went down in gaming’s hall of fame as one of the most heartbraking scenes in the history of the medium. This generation, titles like Valkyria Chronicles, Red Dead Redemption and Call of Duty 4 have been defined by these moments of tragedy and heartbreak. When the worst happens, death can make for the most significant five minutes of a 30 hour experience.

And the Mass Effect series is no stranger to this. In the first two games its deep consequence system played god on more than one occasion, and every player gambled their entire squad of allies and friends during the terrifying suicide mission. But Mass Effect 3 does something new for death in gaming, it teaches acceptance.

You can say goodbye to a lot of soldiers, nay, friends, in Mass Effect 3. A reckless player can stack up quite the body count, and even the cautious Shepards will lose a few squadmates. For me, it was Mordin, Thane, Legion and eventually Anderson that bit the dust. In a game where players have such a strong connection to the characters around them, you’d expect each death more heartbreaking than the last.

But against the backdrop of the war on the Reapers, the death of much-loved characters doesn’t carry quite the same personal impact as it does in other games. Death, after all, is a part of war.

That’s not to say that I didn’t mourn the loss of Mordin as he went out in a blaze of glory, or Thane in his heroic last stand. Indeed, it’s a testament to BioWare’s skills in character development that these moments hit as hard as they do, and their goodbyes serve for some of the emotional highpoints of the entire series. But I never walked away from a character death swearing vengeance, and I was always prepared for the next inevitable loss.

So common is loss in Mass Effect 3 that you find yourself ready for it around any corner. Sacrifices and mistakes that lead to tragedy all become woven into the experience. You find yourself becoming more hardened, less receptive to it each time. In the game’s second half you’re going into missions, not entirely confident that everyone will make it back. That’s a feeling rarely captured in any action game, and ME3 is all the better for it.

Oddly enough, it kind of starts to become okay – acceptable even. Death starts to become less of a weight on your shoulders and more a part of the experience, just another reason to keep going and bring about an end to the Reapers. This shift in attitude is highlighted in the game’s final mission, with the loss of Cortez, your trusty pilot.

Cortez doesn’t play a huge role in the game, but he’s always there and he’s thoroughly dependable. When he sticks his neck out for Shepard and co one last time on earth, it ends with a cold, silent few moments. Cortez’s shuttle is shot down, the deafening explosion quickly put to rest and only a moment of grimace hits Shepard’s face before it’s round the corner and back on with the mission.

Despite being a minor character, the game could have easily made a bigger deal out of this moment. But it doesn’t, and so you don’t. You man up and get on with the task at hand.

Even in a major character like Captain Anderson’s last moments during the game’s finale, there’s a sense of acceptance before he’s even gone. Again, Shepard takes just a moment to dwell in the loss, the tragedy, and then is back to it.

It’s not that the game isn’t giving these characters their due, it’s just fully aware that, as the body count racks up, the player is becoming more and more accepting towards each death. We start to realise that no one’s safe, and that each of these characters is indeed ready to die. And so death doesn’t become the pellet eating, repetitive, tragic, formulaic affair we’ve all known it to be in the past, it becomes something else.

Mass Effect 3 could have easily had the one dramatic death. Shepard could have gone out in the sort of fashion that would go down in gaming’s greatest moments. Instead, it does something far more unique, and, strangely, far more fitting. It adds up all the loss and forces you to swallow it down and move on. Time for mourning can come afterwards; there’s a war on here and everyone knew what they were getting into.

It shows death in a light that gaming hasn’t done before. And it’s just one of the many achievements of an all-round incredible game.